*Jay Leno used an interview with Oprah Winfrey to clarify some misinformation about NBC’s late night debacle that made him out to be the bad guy.
When the dust cleared, Leno came out looking awfully selfish for appearing to hand his show over to Conan, take on a weekly 10 p.m. slot that took prime time dramas (and the jobs they created) off of NBC, and then take the “Tonight Show” back from Conan when ratings for both hosts began circling the drain.
But Leno told Winfrey that NBC execs forced him in 2004 to announce his planned retirement from the “Tonight” show in five years so they could start making the transition to O’Brien, whom NBC had promised would be the new host.
O’Brien was being heavily courted by other networks at the time, Leno said, so in an effort to keep the red-headed comic happy, Leno said the network wanted him to announce his “retirement” and proclaim O’Brien as his eventual replacement.
When NBC moved Leno to a five-nights-a-week primetime slot and O’Brien took over “Tonight,” ratings for the latter suffered greatly, and Leno’s show fared so poorly that affiliates complained bitterly about the small audiences it was delivering to their 11 p.m. newscasts. That led NBC to rearrange things again, setting off the brawl between Leno and O’Brien.
NBC decided to cancel Leno’s 10 p.m. show and place him back at 11:30 p.m. as host of a new half-hour program, which would send O’Brien’s “Tonight” show to 12:05 a.m. Conan refused the offer, opting instead to step down as host after only seven months. NBC, as a result, offered Leno his old seat at “Tonight,” which he accepted.
“Who wouldn’t?” Leno told Oprah, explaining that the gig has always been the ultimate prize for any stand-up comic. But Leno’s decision to take his old job back left his good-guy image in shambles. Winfrey’s online poll had 96 percent of respondents saying they sided with O’Brien.
Leno told Winfrey he wasn’t responsible for pushing O’Brien out. “If the numbers (ratings) had been there, it wouldn’t even be an issue.” Meaning, Winfrey asked, he would “never have been asked to go back” to “Tonight?
“People think you’re behind-the-scenes, pulling strings,” Leno said. “There’s no strings to pull.”
“Anything (NBC) did would have been better than this,” Leno said emphatically. “Anything. Anything they did. If they had come in and shot everybody, I mean, it would have been ‘Oh, people were murdered,’ but at least it would have been a two-day story. NBC could not have handled it worse. From 2004 onward this whole thing was a huge, huge mess.”
Leno’s 10 p.m. talk show ends Feb. 9, making way for coverage of the Winter Olympics. His return to late night will begin following the Winter Games.
Watch clip of Leno’s “Oprah Winfrey Show” interview below: